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Why Do MEN & WOMEN Handle Stress Differently?

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

Men and women, in general, handle stress differently. This reality even includes how they talk about stress. Women are more likely to report feeling stressed and more likely to report feeling levels of stress high enough to make them cry. Men may feel equal amounts of stress at times, but are far less likely to admit it. So begins a conversation about distinctions between the sexes!

Clear societal influences impact how men and women deal with any kind of pressure or illness. For something like stress — which can be perceived as a “weakness” — these influences are prominent. But they are typically not the primary cause for the disparities between men and women.

Men, Women, Stress & Hormones

Physiological differences are actively at play here — specifically when it comes to hormones. At first, it’s mostly the same. You find yourself in the midst of a scary or anxiety-inducing situation. Your body kicks into its stress response. Hormones like cortisol and epinephrine are suddenly coursing through your bloodstream. This is true for both men and women. The difference lies in the introduction of another hormone: oxytocin.

Oxytocin counters the powerful effects of cortisol and epinephrine. Men secrete a small amount of oxytocin — far, far less than women do. Therefore, when oxytocin is combined with already existing female reproductive hormones, women are guided toward emotions that are relaxing and nurturing.

Simply put, men are designed to stay in fight or flight while women rapidly shift into something called “tend and befriend.” Men either fight back or suppress their emotions. Women go into a protective mode meant to reduce distress for themselves and their offspring.

What Does This Mean in a Real-Life Scenario?

Women tend to focus on emotions. For good reason, they do not like experiencing what stress is doing to them (fear, anxiety, etc.). So, influenced by hormones, they cope by shifting their focus to other emotions. This is not always a good thing because those other emotions could be shame, rumination, and self-blame. But it does go a long way in highlighting the differences we are discussing here.

Without that extra oxytocin, men stay in a more competitive state of mind. They are reactive to the presence and fluctuations of stressors. The goal is to find a way to win, so they focus on problem-solving. While a woman under pressure might beat themselves up mentally, a man in the same situation is more likely to beat someone else up.

To add to the contrast, both sexes are often guided by societal expectations. Women are judged harshly if they respond to a situation aggressively. Men fear being judged as weak. Such outside pressure reinforces the internal biological realities.

But What Does “Handle” Mean Here?

In the title, the word “handle” could relate to how each person instantly reacts to a threatening situation. It could also relate to how anyone consciously chooses to handle the chronic presence of stress in their life. Regardless of sex, you can make healthy choices to manage pressure, anxiety, risk, and more. For example:

  • Maintaining a regular sleep routine

  • Making healthy eating choices

  • Engaging in daily exercise and physical activity

  • Cultivating stress management and relaxation techniques

  • Asking for help when you need it

Let’s close by following up on that last item. You are not trapped by your physiological responses. You can take steps and do the work to identify triggers and modify your responses. Such work is best accomplished in the company of an experienced therapist. If you find stress is getting the better of you lately — whether you are male or female — Emerge Counseling Services can help you change that trend into something far more productive. Let’s talk!

Contacting us is a step in the right direction towards your healing journey.

(248) 2-EMERGE (248-236-3743)

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